Duke Divinity professor Kate Bowler writes the account of her diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer at age thirty-five in Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved. Bowler tells a story that is poignant, darkly humorous, and convicting. Her debut book, Blessed, was the first written history of the American prosperity gospel. Through her own experience with cancer, she came to realize how much she had “my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest.” I appreciated her honesty — that it wasn’t merely pride, it was “certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward.” And isn’t this how many of us tend to think as we move through life?
Growing up first-generation American, I was fed the theology of the American dream: you must work very hard so that you not only succeed but deserve that success. But how does that explain the fact that some people work very hard but never experience success, financially or professionally? Is our theology able to cope with this? Does our personal theology prepare us for an unasked-for and unwelcome experience? Where is God in this?
Bowler invites the reader on her journey to understand how her Mennonite upbringing contributed to her talents and growth, her academic interest in the American prosperity gospel movement, and her own personal relationship with God. Her stark language may make some readers uncomfortable: “the promise of heaven to me is this: someday I will get a new set of lungs and I will swim away. But first I will drown.”
There have been a slew of memoirs recently from those affected tragically by cancer, most recently Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (2016) and The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying (2017) by Nina Riggs. What makes Bowler’s unique (and I cringe at comparing people’s tragically true lives) is that she is still living. Bowler is part of a minority receiving an experimental immunotherapy treatment for colon cancer and every three months undergoes a scan to assess any change in her condition.
And here she is in some unchartered territory — in her life as well as literarily. Neither Riggs nor Kalanithi lived to see their memoirs published. Bowler is living — living in that “gracious uncertainty” that Oswald Chambers speaks of. As a wife, mother to a young son, and professor at a major university, how do you plan out life when you are living it in ninety-day segments? Some of that rings of the Gospel, as Matthew 6:34 exhorts “therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (NIV).
But we live in a culture that prides itself on planning and preparation, not savoring and resting. Bowler herself admits that if she were to invent any sin for the season of her life before cancer, it would be “the sin of arrogance, of becoming impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead.” How true those words ring for me. I had just joked with a friend the other day that it seems that as a mom of three children under age eight, I live in the future conditional tense of “if and when” at all times. And the same goes in my professional work as a consultant and writer. If I get this project/client, then life will look like XYZ. On the Myers-Briggs, I’m off the charts on the Intuition/Sensing dichotomy (N-S). That means that I live in the land of possibility, more in the future than in the present or the past. While I believe that this is how I was uniquely created and I see the strengths in that, I can also empathize with what Bowler states as the struggle: “I must learn to live in ordinary time, but I don’t know how.”
And that is what is special about this memoir, this reflection: it would be a shame to reduce it merely to being about cancer. Her cancer may have been the catalyst for this self-analysis, but as Bowler also shares about her struggles with infertility and the paralysis of her arms that struck her during her dissertation (which I found strangely fascinating, almost more gripping than her interactions with oncologists), you understand she’s been down the road of suffering before. What is different this time is that the stakes are higher, there is a finality, one that we must all ultimately face. And thus I discovered my main takeaway from the book: there is suffering and there will be suffering — and some will come so quickly and be so unexpected that it will give us whiplash. And we will be forced out of our future conditional to the present where we will admit, just as Bowler does, that “this life has been more painful than I can have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.” Is this revelatory? Maybe not to some, but if anything, it serves as a reminder to not skip to the end. Relish the ordinary, the now, the middle.